Never let it be said that modern anime is particular about where it draws its inspiration. The concept of creating a series based on a novel written in 1844 then setting it in the year 5053 sounds like a far stretch for any production staff and yet somehow, someway Mahiro Maeda (the director of Blue Submarine No. 6) manages to pull it off in Gankutsuou with style. The novel of course is none other than Three-Musketeer's author, Alexandre Dumas' Count of Monte Cristo (in case you somehow missed this series' title).
Here in the United States, this is a re-release by Funimation of an earlier Geneon DVD release of basically the same name. Side note: Geneon typically labeled the show Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo while Funimation flips the order to The Count of Monte Cristo: Gankutsuou. Other than that the only difference is that rather than spreading the 24 episodes across six discs, Funimation manages to do it in four (packaged in a pair of beautiful thin packs within a subtle cardboard outer case). The source material comes to us via the brilliant minds of Japanese anime studio Gonzo; who themselves bring a long list of unique, thought-provoking titles to the table (such as their 2007 anime adaptation of Romeo and Juliet).
This set, as has been the trend of late, contains virtually no extras to speak of although the language options are thorough (English dub and original Japanese with or without English subtitles).
The story is setup to appeal to fans of the original work and those with no prior exposure alike as it retains all of the key plot points but adds a few new elements and tells it from a totally different perspective (kind of like what John Gardener's novel Grendel does to the classic Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf).
The Count of Monte Cristo: Gankutsuou tells the epic tale of a wrongfully accused man's intricate plot of exacting revenge through the relatable doings of a fifteen-year-old aristocrat from Paris named Albert (pronounced "al-bear" in homage to the French author's original motif). As stated above, the show goes to great lengths to establish an atmosphere stunningly reminiscent of 19th century France while integrating just enough technology to remind the viewer that this is, in fact, the future- and the very distant future at that.
Pacing is deliberately slow and thorough and really compliments that rather dry-nature of the source material. However, while this may be viewed as a negative with some shows, Gankutsuou turns the story telling element into an art form in and of itself. This is adult anime and not because of the usual pitfalls that eliminate younger viewers from the equation. Rather than sexual references, violence and language, Gankutsuou can be called mature on account of its sophistication and mood-appropriate visuals.
In fact it is nearly impossible to find a review of the show that doesn't trip all over itself in praise for the artistic vision and unique animation style. The best way to describe it is imagine near photo-realistic textures layered behind transparent character models. If that sounds odd to you, rest assured, it is but somehow it works. What makes the visuals so unique is that the textures are static, meaning they don't move even when the character boasting them does. It's one of those traits so unique that you may go as far as to label it distracting early on yet it manages to become subdued as the viewer loses himself in the ever-thickening plot. Even by the later episodes there are a few ugly examples of where texture-overloaded scenes come off as overly busy or muddled but as a whole, the source material literally benefits from this unique art style.
If there were a single complaint worth mentioning about the show it would have to be the simple reality that this isn't run of the mill anime by any sense of the word. It's pretty difficult to place the show into a genre in fact. The story is, quite frankly, unlike any other seen in modern anime, which I suppose is to be expected when you remember that this is classic literature in animated form. Viewers expecting scantly clad women, characters with abnormally large and watery eyes, or slapstick of any kind need not apply. Being that the setting does take place in the distant future, there are a few robotic fight scenes (duels that wouldn't look out of place in Escaflowne) and some pretty cool space travel concepts.
As a whole, though, it would be easy for viewers with a short attention span to become bored. There's a steady and reliable flow to the plot that requires patience and a bit of maturity (or at the very least, an appreciation for fine culture).
When directly compared to the original novel, some may scoff at the fact that there is a slight supernatural angle that acts as the backdrop here. Without revealing too much of the actual mystery presented within, let me just comment on the character of Edmond Dantes allowing an insalubrious entity (Gankutsuou) possession of his body so as to escape imprisonment and to realize his ambitions of revenge. A fan of the original work, it is a bit disappointing personally to note that Edmond's creativity in escaping his prison was omitted here. Worse still is that while the original can be viewed essentially as a cautionary tale in the dangers of allowing vengeance to overtake one's life, here the metaphor is perhaps taken a bit too literally. Otherwise, and especially true for those not tied to the beauty of the original work, the supernatural elements do go a long way in adding intrigue and creepiness to the formula.
The show's music score is not only hauntingly appropriate; it's at times, dare I say, catchy (especially the opening theme which is about as unique as they come). Throughout are rich piano scores and solid symphonic pieces.
In all, Gankutsuou: the Count of Monte Cristo is one of the most unique properties of all time to grace anime ideology. With a timeless story, unique art style, and underlining themes that nearly anyone can benefit from in their own lives, Gankutsuou reminds us all that modern art is far from dead; if even only the result of rejuvenating the classics as the case may be.